Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The dream landscape

Most of the time, I don't remember my dreams.  And I am, on the whole, grateful for this, because when I do remember my dreams, it's usually because I've had a very disordered and unsatisfactory night's sleep - waking, or rising close to waking, several times.

On the other hand, the dreams I do remember tend to be extraordinarily vivid and richly detailed (and, often, narratively coherent), which makes me occasionally just a little regretful that I don't recall more of them.  A lot of people, I know, recommend keeping a notebook beside the bed to jot down anything you happen to remember if you wake briefly in the middle of the night - a 'Book of Dreams'.  I wonder quite how that works - is it just a case of facilitating the capture of fleeting memory traces, the fragments of dream story which endure in the first few moments of waking but have disappeared forever long before morning comes, or.... does the presence of the book, greedily waiting for content to be added to it, somehow make you more likely to wake up, more likely to remember, perhaps even subtly influence the kind of dreams you have?  Well, whatever - it wouldn't work for me at the moment, because the light in my bedroom's broken...

As I said in the opening post on here (long since added to the sidebar as the 'About the Blog' description), my memories of my drinking life tend to get muddled together; the fact that they all reside in a common category of my memory tends to create the misleading sensation that these recollections are all closely linked temporally and geographically as well.  Instead of a 'memory palace' for structuring my mental records, I seem to have a 'memory bar street' - and, usually, I picture it as being in either Oxford or Edinburgh (the two best pub towns I have known).  It worries me slightly that after so many years of drinking - almost exclusively - in Bejing, I might start to reassign my earlier drinking recollections, to locate them all in Nanluoguxiang or Sanlitun Nanjie or 'The Car Park'.  Luckily, that shows no signs of happening.  Perhaps quality trumps quantity in establishing the tracks - and the filing cabinets - in our memory.  Or perhaps it's just that the earliest memories create the templates, and later ones, however powerful or numerous, always meekly slot into the existing scheme.

Lately, I've been growing increasingly concerned about how this architecture of the memory may get distorted by the relentless industriousness of the imagination: as we get older, does it inevitably become harder - impossible - to distinguish between things that really happened and things we merely imagined.  I fear it may be a particular hazard for such an incorrigible storyteller as myself: casting an anecdote into words gives it a far more rigid and enduring form than the original memory, and can displace or corrupt that memory; the natural human impulse to embellish (and especially to seek to justify or exonerate oneself) can all too easily recast our image of what actually happened.  I am guiltily aware of there being a couple of stories I've invented about myself that now seem quite as real to me as my actual experiences, to the point where I am now only dimly, uncertainly, aware of the fiction; and, as my memory starts to become less robust in middle age, I fret that there may be other made-up (or heavily airbrushed!) incidents - tall tales and curious coincidences and moments of minor heroism - that have now become completely assimilated into what I think of as the true recollections of my real life.  My god, yes, this blog is probably full of them.

Anyway, this has been preying on my mind particularly of late because in the past week or so I've had two or three instances of - seemingly extended - dreaming about past phases of my life where I was drinking a lot (and enjoying my drinking!); but I realise that, although they fit very plausibly into my life history (the last, most intricate, mostly crisply remembered dream-sequence was clearly set during the period when I was working in Oxford in the early 1990s),.... well, um, these events, these drinking sessions didn't actually happen, these wonderful, sleazy, characterful bars didn't exist.  And yet they now seem very much as though they did; already I am having difficulty disentwining them from my real memories of Oxford in the '90s; and I rather fear that, before too long, they could supplant those true memories, or at least gain equal status alongside them, no longer recognised as products of the imagination.

I know I have had similar dreams quite often in the past; but usually these have been about single incidents or single nights of drinking, and mostly confined to just one bar - indeed, confined to a bar that did in fact exist, or was recognisably modelled on one or more bars that really existed (although there was an instance of a recurring dream I had a couple of years ago where the bar setting was a pure fantasy, with no close parallels in the real world).  These latest dreams were like potted summaries of extended periods in my life, involving whole networks of bars that I went to at different times, with different people, for different reasons - an astonishingly intricate fiction!!

And the dominant emotion I felt on waking from these dreams - before all the self-reflective angst above set in - was.... regret.  I found myself thinking, "Damn, THAT was good.  Pity that never happened.  I think that was actually even better than my Oxford experiences in the '90s."


lines are down said...

One of the very real benefits of keeping a dream book (and surely you must have a torch, for uses just such as this, Froog! Don't you have power outages in China?) is that it helps you monitor when an "experience" first entered your consciousness--especially helpful if you have recurring dreams about places or people (that don't exist) or relationships between places and people (who never mixed) that eventually become so familiar that the lines blur between "when" and "if" they happened.

When I flip through the pages of mine, occasionally I'm surprised to read something that I've since adopted wholesale and retrospectively meshed into my reality. I'll have been reminiscing: Remember the time we were in the desert and Lucy found that abandoned freezer full of milk, and took a nap in it? Remember when the red dye on the old pot shards turned into blood, as a warning not to take them home? Remember when those hundreds of people came to the shores of the Salt Lake when you were camping there, circled round your fire and didn't say a word, then all walked into the water and disappeared?

No, my dream book reminds me, You don't.

Very useful indeed.

Froog said...

Interesting examples, Lines... but I venture to say you'd have to be pretty untethered from reality ever to suppose that events like those were part of your actual experience!!

I think holding a torch, a pen, and a notebook would overtax my available quota of prehensile limbs. And I hope you're not suggesting that I should a miner's helmet in bed!

I should just buy a new lightbulb. It's only been on the 'To Do' list for three months or so.

Anonymous said...

Keeping a bedside journal is not only a great way to recollect dreams easier, its one of the recommended tools to use in order to become a lucid dreamer. Lucid dreaming, I'm sure you aware, is the ability to realize that you are dreaming, while you are in the dream. You can eventually get to the point where you have some limited control in your dreams as well.

I'm able to lucidly dream on occasion (maybe every few months) and for me its an incredibly exhilirating experience. Better than any amusement park ride. When I started to lucidly dream I had no control and was only able to experience it for what seemed like a few seconds. Over the years, the experiences have lasted longer and I've been able to attain limited control. It seems almost without fail, the first thing I want to do is fly. At some point thought, I always fall out of the lucid state and inevitably freak out about plummeting to my death.

The other thing I always immediately think to do is to examine the objects in the dream and see how detailed they are. I always expect a 'fuzzy' image and am blown away everytime by all the detail in everyday objects. For example, examining the fine wood grain in a table. Of course, this is probably my mind manufacturing things from memory, but it still amazes me everytime.

If you've never experienced lucid dreaming or just want to recollect some of your dreams better, start with that bedside journal. Get in the habit of trying to remember what you were just thinking everytime you wake up. Use that journal as a que to try and remember. The closer you are to the dream state, the easier the recall. It also helps you identify the dream state better, thus giving lucidity. Of course if you don't particularly like your dreams, ditch the advice. Sometimes the blue pill is the best choice.

lines are down said...

The boundary between dream and reality is not only thin, but downright permeable. It's pretty easy to absorb those sleeping visions right into your life by osmosis if you don't pay the right kind of attention! As such--no, I don't deny the untethered bit.

And I love Hopfrog's take. It is pretty amazing to be able to consciously navigate a space that wants exploring (which is the only incarnation of lucid dreaming in which I can consciously affect the outcome).

Yes, I suppose a light bulb would be cheaper /more rational than a miner's helmet. But not nearly as fun to entertain guests with.

The other alternative is learning to write in the dark...though that might add an entirely different sort of ambiguity to your dreams. Maybe not all bad--I'd wager that misinterpreting one's own illegible handwriting would probably be just as useful as the original content, when trying to map out the weird, sub-basement rooms of the psyche!

Froog said...

Lines, I haven't had guests in my bed for a long time now. And if I did, I think they'd be freaked out rather than "entertained" by my wearing my spelunking gear.

Moving swiftly on.... I wonder if this topic is top-of-mind for all of us partly, at least, because Inception has generated such a lot of publicity in recent months.

HF, I've always been a fairly lucid dreamer. Perhaps it's partly the robustness of my ego: I'm always very self-aware in dreams (and, however bizarre the scenarios may be, I'm always recognisably myself; I don't inhabit other characters in dreams... does anyone? I suspect it's not very common). Maybe it's also partly down to my being a storyteller: I'm very sensitively attuned to the artifice of dream narrative, I keep on 'noticing' how things are developing. So, I'm always strongly aware of my 'self' in dreams; and I'm almost always aware - at least dimly, in the back of the mind - that I'm dreaming.

I try not to take conscious control of the dream's direction - because, as you say, the natural impulse is to want to fly (and that quickly gets scary and/or - strangely! - boring). Where I am aware of dream manipulation going on, it's at a very primal level - subconscious or barely conscious - a rather unfocused desire to make the dream more pleasant... often through adding some sexual titillation.

However, I quite often find that the greedy promptings of my libido - couldn't she be more attractive? couldn't she be attracted to me? couldn't we start making out? - are swiftly undone by the 'true direction' of the dream. For example, I suddenly find that the girl I've just start kissing is not, after all, alone with me in my living room, but is standing in the middle of a crowded airport.... and her flight is being called.

You don't have to be Sigmund to decipher those dreams!

Anonymous said...

Oh please don't tell me the flying gets boring! Love that part.

You seem to have an incredibly high degree of lucidity, much higher than mine. I've on occasion steered some beautiful imaginary women into my dreams but something in the back of my mind tells me to stop about halfway through the fun. I suppose I'm thankful for that!